No story this week guys. This doesn’t mean I’ve abandoned the art of fiction. On the contrary I spent this weekend editing two flash fiction stories that I’ll try and publish on some other online outlets. I’ve spent this week reading Sol Stein’s Stein on Writing to get new insights into the craft. Writing fiction week by week is great, but to get better I need an infusion of new ideas — or as my old writing instructor at USC used to say a “confluence of influence.” I’ve got a second book I’m going to read called Bird by Bird. I’ll try and have something for next week. Maybe I’ll post a review of Stein on Writing which might be useful to you.
I remember being eight years old and rummaging through the steering room of our yacht. I came across some old registration papers for a man named Benjamin Ohne. I know for a fact that we have no relation to him, and when I showed my mom, she took the papers out of my hands, and I never saw them again. There’s a conspiracy between parents and grandparents to hide this truth from us, not just me, but all of us younger than twenty. I keep asking the same question though: Why did we give up the land for the ocean? I used the Fleet’s network and did a search but all I could find was current news and old historical documents. Nothing about the last 20-30 years. There’s a gap no one wants to fill, and it’s time I took matters into my own hands.
We live on a yacht and water wraps the entire horizon of our world. Our ship is one of many in a rag-tag fleet of boats made of other yachts, skiffs, whalers, a Mississippi steamer, several dozen Chinese junks, an icebreaker, a super tanker, and a few old U.S. destroyers. An aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Enterprise, is the center of our fleet. I had heard that she used to launch F-15s and other cool looking jets, but nowadays I see the deck used more as a vast clothes line for laundry than for landing jet planes. We live in the Atlantic; we’re not going anywhere. Sails replaced engines. The wind steers us. Ropes tether us together just in case we stray too far, and you don’t want to stray too far.
Every night, while everyone’s asleep, I go topside and sit on the deck. I listen to the water lapping against our yacht’s hull and let the warm night breeze brush against my skin. I feel like I should be able to hear birds, but for some reason, I haven’t heard one or seen one since I was six.
On the horizon I see the lights of the Enterprise flicker on. She is a bright beacon in an otherwise dark world. I hear the motor of an old biplane whirling to life and see it run along the deck of the Enterprise and shoot into the sky. It flies into the darkness and vanishes into a large silhouette. It can’t be, I think. But it is. Land ho.
I head below deck quietly and shake Aaron awake. “Dude, we’re near land.”
“I’ll make breakfast,” Aaron says.
“Don’t wake mom and dad.” I slip back into my room and change. There’s a satchel of stuff I lug back to the dingy attached to the end of our yacht house. There’s enough supplies for a day or two, but we won’t stay out long. My brother comes out with some algae and fish. We eat while we work ensuring everything is ready. I untie the boat and we shove off.
The sky changes gradients of blue. The fleet is a spec where the sun rises. My arms burn, but the sight of buildings illuminated by dawn pushes me on. The answers are coming.
We paddle by the Statue of Liberty. The ocean narrows into a river. Buildings line either side of us and bridges span across the water. On the bridge, cars wait with open doors for their owners to return. It looks like their drivers left them in haste. Aaron pulls out my dad’s binoculars and scopes out the land.
“There’s nobody here,” he says.
“Take over for a sec, I want to see.” I gaze into the abandoned city. Trash tumbles through where people used to walk. In some places new life buds through the asphalt. Along the water, we spy a harbor with tall fences. Barbed wire lines the top of them making it impossible to climb over. What happened here? Why did our grandparents leave this all behind?
Aaron and I beach our boat on the sands and set foot on dry land. There’s no rocking or swaying. Solid. Dry. Ground. I had only been on dry land once before, when we were on a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific a couple of years back, but this is Aaron’s first time. How strange, no birds still. Just the wind howling and water sloshing against our dingy.
We wander around the beach. Trash lies around us — old cups of Starbucks coffee, crumpled sheets of the New Yorker, cups, bottles, cans, and shopping bags from Macy’s, Neimann Marcus, and FAO Schwartz. Someone’s cellphone is buried in the sand; the battery’s dead. There’s blood on the back of it; I drop it and wipe my hands against my shirt. I know its been dried for years, but still. There’s danger here in the silence.
“Mikey!” All my senses tingle. I take off in the direction of his voice and grab a plank of wood stuck in the gravel as I run by. A wall of rock obscures my brother. “Mike!” I run faster around the rock wall; Aaron stands alone holding something metal and rectangular in his hands. My heart slows; I lower the stick, but I am conscious that the city scrutinizes our every move.
“What is it?”
“It’s a broken camera.”
He hands me the machine. I open the side flap and pop out an SD card. “Nice. Come on!” We head back to the boat. I take out my backpack and pull out a netbook. The kinetic charger’s plugged into the back so I know there’s juice. The SD goes into the side slot and to my surprise the machine detects it. Double-click. I get a file directory. DSC3843.jpg. Open file.
A man and woman pose together with the city skyline behind them.
“Hey Mike,” Aaron says.
“Hold on.” DSC3844.jpg. The photo is an image of a dark and blurry man. DSC3845.jpg. More blurry figures but the cameraman’s made progress down the street. Whoever he is, he’s in a hurry or being chased. The woman from before is running and mostly off-frame. DSC3846.jpg. Is this a joke? The picture is of a boy. His mouth bloody. He snarls at the camera. His tiny hands curled and ready to kill. DSC3847.jpg. The woman lying on the floor. A group of people are helping to calm her. No, wait…
DSC3848.jpg. “Holy shit.”
“Mike! Let’s get out of here.”
I face the city. Aaron stands on the boat gripping an oar. They’re everywhere. Decomposed human bodies amble to us. A woman’s ribs show through her tattered peace-symbol T-shirt. A man’s skin flakes off and his jaw is missing. They’re falling over the edge of the sidewalk, crashing into the sand dunes. They crawl towards us. I jump out of the boat and push it back into the river. I’m stepping on something hairy. My toes touch what feels like a muddy nose. Tree branches wrap around my legs.
No, a hand grips my leg. I’m pulled under. I see below the water for an instant. Skeletal faces snap their jaws at me.
My brother grabs me by the scruff of my neck. A ghoul bites into my leg. I scream. Aaron pulls me into the boat and behind me, a ghoul rises from the river. Its skin blue and gray. The eyes missing. Jaw agape wailing silently. He stumbles to us. Aaron clobbers his head with the oar. The waterlogged gray-matter squishes and flies apart. Hands grip the side of our dingy pulling at it.
I grab an oar and jab the water. Aaron does the same. We paddle back to the middle of the river. The ghouls swarm the river bank and collapse into the water.
We row hard and fast.
The city is alive. Ghouls roam the streets. Some run. Most linger or limp. Where did they all come from? They all seem to be attracted to us. We pass under a bridge. Corpses rain over the edge of it. The ghouls explode into parts as they hit the water. “Don’t look! Keep rowing!” My arms are on fire, but I can’t quit now, not with Aaron onboard.
Open water at last. I lie back. My leg throbs. Pain shoots through my body. Aaron takes over the rowing. I tend to my wound. The blood oozes out black; the bite mark looks gangrene. Without the adrenaline I can really feel the pain now. “I’m not feeling so hot,” I say.
Off in the distance, the whine of a motor draws closer to us. Aaron shouts and waves his hands. I see blurry figures alongside our boat, but I know they’re not ghouls. They move with intelligence.
“Aaron! Thank God!” That’s my mom.
“Michael! Keep it together, son!” That’s dad.
“We’re going to have to take his leg off. Now.” That’s Doctor Winters. “Get him to bite on this.” Dad sticks a metal handle in my mouth. Hot pricking sensations bite at my leg. Deeper and deeper. I howl and gnaw at the metal stick in my mouth. A saw buzzes. Blood splatters. Then a splash. “Let’s get him to the Enterprise.”
I open my eyes. How much time passed? My leg itches but when I go to scratch there’s just the bed linen and the mattress underneath. Doctor Winters and my dad come to my bedside. “Good to see you awake son,” Winters says.
My dad hugs me. “Thank God.”
“What were those things?” My dad won’t answer.
Doctor Winters obliged my curiosity: “Some people call it Judgement Day, everyone else has no idea how it happened or why it happened, but fifty years ago the entire world changed when the dead woke up and claimed the land. Some of us were there, some of us were children.” He eyes my father squarely. “This generation’s lucky enough not to know that horror, but I reckon we can’t hide it forever. You’re all gonna have to know.” He handed me my netbook. The photos are still on the desktop.
“Just tell them the truth, son,” Winter says.
Notes: Okay, this was inspired by a dream I had last night. It goes something like this: I’m investigating a downed airplane and buried in the floorboards of the plane is a digital SLR camera. I pry the camera free, pull out the SD card, and carry it back to some little computer and view the images on it. What’s on the film? The undead. Whoever owned this camera shot pictures of them up close and personal. A kid with blood oozing from his mouth – that’s the only image I remember from the dream and the one I put in the story. This isn’t the first time I’ve had a zombie dream. I don’t consider them nightmares.
I’ve studied dream analysis before. Neuroscientists, believe dreams are a survival mechanism. Dreams are like a computer randomly sampling files on your harddrive and coming up with a new one. It doesn’t make a bit of sense, but common symbols crop up in dreams such as a dark, shadowy figure chasing after you. Another common one is falling from a great height (or lucidly flying). It’s the brain trying to cope with surviving horrific things. I guess after so much Left 4 Dead, Resident Evil, the Walking Dead, and World War Z, zombies are the dark and shadowy figures of my dreams. And I usually have a shotgun in hand.
Bring on the Apocalypse. I’m ready.
I’m over half a century old but I’d like to think that I’m still young at heart. Henry Glover’s my name. Back in my youth I used to work for corporations like Celestine Mining and Winthrope Unlimited doing a lot of asteroid drilling. I was doing eighteen hour days. I’d get home real late and Emily, my darling wife, would have dinner. It’s eat, shower, sleep, repeat. I had enough of that life. A man’s spirit shouldn’t ever be broke. “Live free or die,” that’s what my great-granddaddy used to say during the Revolution.
When I was a kid, I dreamt of seeing the stars and living out amongst them. I didn’t think I’d be doing tedious work. A couple years back there was a gold rush in the Typhani System. It turns out the asteroids were rich in all kinds of minerals — gold, silver, copper, nickel, and aluminum. I swung by there just in time to get my share of the action. I hit a huge silver vein and managed to dig out and smelt the whole thing into bricks. I choose to invest instead of squander it. I quit my job and headed into the great frontier. I could go anywhere, everywhere. It’s all frontier — from here to infinity.
You might think that my wife tried to talk me out of this adventure. Hell no, Emily’s along for the ride. I inculcated my two kids, Jasmine and Alan, with the right way of thinking, but they ain’t just indoctrinated, they’re smart and can think for themselves in a pinch. We live on the MCS Benjamin Franklin, a starship I built with my own two hands out of post-Revolution era flyers. Now, I know you might be thinking, Henry’s it’s a junker, a hodge-podge of shit you welded together, but it ain’t. The computer system is a state of the art QuantaFlex system. There’s a family room with a 360 degree view of space. Emily’s got her own work room for her crafts and projects. I’ve got my sitting room. The kids can use the family room or their own room for games and school.
Alan’s my eldest. He’s sixteen, smart as a damn wick, but that ain’t because of his schoolin’. Sure, public school’s a great place to make friends, but it ain’t no place to teach a child. He can learn his numbers, history, readin’ and writin’ there, but I taught him the skills that will take him further. He’s a handy kid; knows how to fix a broken computer, can stabilize a thruster, and knows the parts of our old Mark I FTL drive. He can handle himself most of all.
It was that day, March 24th. I’ll never forget it. We entered the Endris Beta system. We had been cruising along for hundreds of thousands of kilometers, not a trace of anyone or anything in sight. Jas mapped using the deep sensor sweep as we crossed the void. There’s a good penny to be earned in producing quality maps. We sent a drone to scout the nearby asteroid belt. Seemed to be a relic from a dead planet, smashed to dust eons ago and filled with valuable minerals.
I turned to my boy Alan, “Saddle up pardner, we’re taking the minerpod out.” The boy was obsessed with the thing. It’s a small conical pod with a carbon-fiber chain attached at the apex to the Franklin. It’s got thrusters to move on its own but it can’t go too far. I use it to take samples of asteroids. Research scientists at universities and corporations pay a pretty penny for a slab of rock. They could easily send their own Finders out to scour the galaxy, but they don’t have the money to cover the space. Us regular folks looking to make a buck can do the work for ‘em.
I sat down with Alan in the cramped pod and taught him the controls. There’s a joystick to guide the laser drill and an holo-screen that displays the target. You line up your target, aim, and shoot just like a video game. Once we’ve bored under the surface of the rock, we extract a sample. It’s delivered into a container and stowed away. I taught him how to use the thrusters to maneuver the pod about, but I’d lower the chain close to the rock and make sure he stayed tethered.
“I got it, pop,” he said. Just to prove it he showed me how to turn on the engine without me ever saying how. He operated the drill and centered it but didn’t fire. Computers and ships come naturally to Alan. I reckon some day he’d make a damn fine engineer, but don’t wanna say anything yet. Let the boy figure it out on his own.
We returned to the Franklin. Alan suited up and got back into the pod. I let the tether out and he maneuvered the ship into place. I tapped into the minerpod’s onboard camera. We found an asteroid a couple miles long and began to drill. Inside were traces of gold, silver, and other rare minerals. It was an auspicious start.
Alan and I were so busy that I didn’t see’em on the radar screen. Jas ran into the room hollerin’ about a ship.
“What kind of ship?” I asked her.
She didn’t have a clue. I should’ve sensed trouble right then and there, but I gave the controls to her. “Watch your brother,” I said and headed up to the family room. Through the skylight, I saw a massive ship, one of the old Jupiter freighters with her nose pointed at us. Behind it, ice crystals and debris ballooned from the wake of its jump. I knew Jupiter style boats were the mainstay of pirates. Most of them were constructed by the Chinese, post-Revolution, and unsavory types took to it cause they were cheap, easy to fly, and could jump light years.
How the hell did they know we were here? “Jasmine!” I yelled. “Reel your brother in! Get him on the ship!”
You know how bullets sound when your inside of a space ship? It’s like rain hitting a tin roof. The Franklin’s got a strong hull to bounce bullets, but I watched one of our winglets and engines get tore up. I slid down the ladder and shut the family room hatch just as the glass shattered. We’ve got a strong midsection to the ship, so even if they blow off all the parts sticking out we should be fine.
Jas is in the other room screaming. Emily comes in wondering what’s going on. I shove my face against the porthole window. The tether’s snapped. The minerpod’s floated off. “Alan, Alan!” I call over the radio. The rain plucks our tin roof and our ship twists. I’m losing sight of him and the asteroid belt. “Alan! Respond!”
Our radio whistled and blew static. A chinaman babbled on in his gookspeak. The Jupiter freighter kisses the backside of our boat. Em and Jas screamed; it hurt me to hear ‘em like that. We twisted through space going God-knows-where, and Alan’s in the rocks. It don’t get worse than this.
The anti-gravity failed. Cups, plates, utensils, books, pictures, all the things that made up our quaint little home lifted off and floated about. My daughter doesn’t got her space legs and she’s flailing trying to understand her new derangement. Em’s anchored herself down and gets Jas under control. I swim to the porthole and catch a glimpse of the asteroid belt as we tumble away. The freighter’s girth hides Alan from us.
I get on the radio and turn on my babelfish. “My son’s out there. Help me get him back.” The software translates and transmits.
My answer. A hailstorm thunking against our hull. This time I heard a hiss. The computer beeped at us. We’re venting atmosphere.
“Em! Go plug ‘er up!” I’m headed off to the cockpit. I trust Em and no sooner have I said it she’s on her way. I take Jas with me to the cockpit. We fire the methane rockets and stabilize the Franklin. I know the Jupiter’s got a blind spot right below her, and with Jas’ help we get right under her blazing guns and reorient ourselves to be parallel to her underside.
Em enters the bridge. Her hair’s disarrayed and she’s a bit pale. Near death’ll do that to you. “Get the O2 tanks,” I told her. “I’m cutting the power.”
“Life support?” she asked.
I turn each system off one at a time until only the lights remain. Em’s got us on the O2 tanks and I shut off life support and the lights. A flashlight and portable radio tuned to my son’s channel’s were the only hardware I got on.
We waited in silence. Instead of methane I use compressed air to make adjustments to keep us parallel to the freighter’s bottom.
Jasmine reached across my face and pointed out the window. My gaze followed her finger. A man in a spacesuit swung over the hull and bounced towards us. He had an ARC-7 railgun. He fired against our hull and shattered the window.
“Out of the cockpit! Out! Out!”
I pushed Em and Jas through the door. The glass cracked with each rail strike. I swam through the hatch and sealed it just as the glass blew out. I felt the suction of space grabbing at my legs, just for a moment. Leaning against the bulkhead, I heard the bastard stepping about our cockpit.
The radio whistled into life. “You surrender. Give over ship and come peaceful.” I hated the way gooks talked — in starts and stops, sputtering each of our words, mangling them.
Sparks flared around the sealed cockpit door. Laser cutters. They were ready to space us. Em held Jas tight. In all my twenty years, I never knew Em to give up the ghost, but I saw it in her eyes. I ordered Em to shut the porthole window and I dashed below deck to shut the hatches just incase they blew those windows out too. When I returned I found my wife hunkering over the minerpod’s LCD. I forgot that it ran on its own generator. The blue glow from the screen bathed their faces, and for a moment even though we were going to die, they seemed tranquil.
The minerpod camera looked straight into the Franklin’s cockpit. Three men stood inside working on the door. Alan! God bless him. He struck one of the pirates with a laser. The other two turned and shot at him. The camera shook and static filled the screen.
We were speechless. My wife, daughter, and I huddled around the screen. I slapped the monitor. “Alan!” I called into the radio.
The picture cleared up. Two men were dead and a third floating off into space. The boy fended them off.
“Dad, I can lead ‘em off,” Alan radioed.
“No, Alan, you’ve done enough.”
“Once they start chasing me, go hide in the asteroid field.”
“Tell mom and Jas I love ‘em.”
Emily pulled the radio from my hands. “Alan, no!” Snippets of static teased us, made our hearts jump. I glanced out the porthole window and the Chinks pulled away. Alan did it. I fired the ship’s compressed air hurdling us towards the asteroid field. Sure enough the freighter had no idea we’d gone. From the porthole window, I saw that they were chasing him.
We watched the minerpod’s monitor. Alan sped the small ship into the void. Around the edges of his view I saw streaks of bullets whizzing by. “Come on boy, shake ‘em off.” The screen turned to static.
Through the porthole, I saw the freighter’s railguns streaking in the midnight ocean. There wouldn’t be no explosion. If he was hit, the ship would just fall to pieces and his body would float out into space. Moments later, a flash. I knew they kicked their FTL on and dashed out. I sent out a distress signal and waited with Em and Jas. The radio clicked and sizzled. Em clutched it tight hoping that one of the outbursts would be followed by Alan’s voice. I had to pry the walkie-talkie out of her hands and we let it float in the middle of us.
The women shed their tears. The drops squeezed out from their eyes and floated in orbit of the radio. I wept too. So many tears gathered like little glass crystals that I was mesmerized by them. The LCD screen lit them up like little stars.
I lost my boy, but I kept my life, my freedom, and my family.
So back in January I started writing down a timeline of events for a sci-fi universe I was crafting piecemeal, and I realized that the first two stories I wrote (Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 and Relativity) have a place in that same sci-fi universe. I thought it might be cool to continue building this sci-fi universe through these short stories on Courne Supremacy and it might give me a stronger sense of how things played out. Expect more but it won’t be any kind of linear order. I think I leave clues here and there in the text so the reader can piece together when each of these stories took place.